Unseen Academicals. By Terry Pratchett. Harper. $25.99.
Let us now praise Terry Pratchett. Or rather Sir Terry Pratchett, the author having been knighted early this year under circumstances that would call into question his inheritance of the mantle of arch-satirist Jonathan Swift if there were any way to call that into question. Pratchett is quite thoroughly British, and Swift was Irish, but Pratchett still seems a most unlikely knight of the realm. After all, he spends much of his time undermining everything on which the realm and its former colonies, such as the United States, are built.
Unseen Academicals is Pratchett’s most thoroughly British book in some time, and that may give pause to some readers on the western side of the pond, who will wonder what in heaven’s name Pratchett means by passing references to scouse (a kind of meat and vegetable stew) and characters called bledlows (perhaps having to do with a village in Buckinghamshire, although the author never quite makes that clear). More importantly, Americans will be bewildered by the alleged subject of Unseen Academicals, which is football – none of your bleedin’ American-style “game” with padded uniforms on refrigerator-sized slabs of human meat and with endless time-outs, but real football, with hooligans and no stopping the game unless somewhat gets killed and maybe not even then, and almost no scoring at all (the greatest player of all time scored four points in his entire career, we learn early on). This is real football, not to be demeaned by being called “soccer,” especially since it has some of the daintiness of rugby thrown in.
But because this novel is set on Discworld, which of course is not Earth, not at all (“There are more things in Heaven and Disc than are dreamed of in our philosophy,” one sage character sagely observes), it is inevitable that this book about football is not about football, or at least not wholly, and maybe not very much after all, although to be the judge of that, you will have to read it, which is a remarkably exhilarating and laugh-and-thought-producing experience. The book’s title refers to Unseen University, good old UU, the centerpiece of Discworld wizardry, except that much of the magic therein appears to have gone rogue and an obscure provision in a long-ago bequest turns out to require the occasional playing of a football game lest the wizards be deprived of their preferred choice of many dozens of different types of cheese.
Obviously this is a Romeo and Juliet story (that’s obvious, isn’t it?), and it just so happens that there are two violently, virulently opposed football clubs, one of them supported by the son of the aforementioned highest scorer of all time (who, however, works at UU and does not intend to play football and come to the same bad end as his father), and the other supported by perhaps the most beautiful and empty-headed model ever to grace the front page of a Discworld newspaper while wearing a beard. And her name is actually Juliet – of course it’s a Romeo-and-Juliet story.
Never assume. It’s not. Or rather it is, but that’s no more the main point than is football. Or cheese. What is so astonishing about Pratchett’s peculiar genius – and it is genius, but only with the qualifying adjective – is the way he casually throws in oblique references to earlier Discworld books and recurring characters while taking a new novel such as Unseen Academicals in entirely different directions that eventually tie into all that has gone before. So Lord Vetinari, tyrannical and perfectly Machiavellian ruler of the city of Ankh-Morpork, plays the other characters here like the game pieces they turn out to be. Rincewind and his walkabout luggage show up, and Death has a bit part, too, being as pithy and self-aware as usual. And there are passing references, which indeed pass very quickly, to dwarfs digging ever deeper beneath the city, to the game of Thud, to the Assassin’s Guild, and so on. Interwoven with these are offhand comments that Pratchett appears to make for no better (or worse) reason than that he can get away with them. Thus, “as an eyewitness the average person is as reliable as a meringue lifejacket.” And, she “met the gaze, which was quite difficult, of Mr. Wobble, the three-eyed transcendental teddy bear.” And, “It was like listening to two ancient dragons talking to each other with the help of an even older book of etiquette written by nuns.” And by the way, please note that in Ankh-Morpork, a trolley bus is really a troll-ey bus, which means a troll with seats upon his back, suitable transport for the reasonably well-to-do.
Now, all the aforesaid relates only tangentially (or perhaps subliminally) to the tale of Juliet and her Romeo (whose name is actually Trev); and no mention has yet been made of Juliet’s steadfast and much smarter (if homelier) friend, Glenda, who learns to listen to sherry and for whom a character named Nutt may be a beau. Nutt may in fact be the most important character here, his origin mysterious, his appearance peculiar, his knowledge and strength both prodigious despite his meek and mild and near-starved appearance. His ability to un-die may turn out to be important. Or maybe not, in the grand scheme of things, where the overriding question is whether UU can not only field a football team but actually win a game without using magic. Or maybe there is some other overriding question. It’s all quite wonderfully confused and confusing, and thoroughly satisfying. Or, as UU’s Archchancellor Ridcully says at one point to Glenda, “I see there are a great many things we don’t yet understand.” To which Glenda replies, “Yes, sir. Everything.”
Praise be to Pratchett.